Postmodern Conservative

Viewpoint Diversity?

So I was interviewed for this book by Jon Shields and Josh Dunn on viewpoint diversity.

Their way to jump on the diversity bandwagon is to observe that our colleges are lacking in real diversity of opinions, at least among faculty. Almost everyone votes Democratic, and almost everyone thinks that conservatives and their causes are some combination of stupid and evil, if occasionally only just reactionary. Those who talk about diversity when it comes to race and ethnicity, of course, say we want our campuses — our professor and students — to reflect the diversity characteristic of our country. That is, in fact, a noble goal, although we can argue over what means we should use to achieve it. So let’s demand that our professors reflect the diversity of our moral, religious, and political opinions. That is, after all, what many or most students will find in the workplace, and we don’t have much of a democracy if our educated men and women aren’t aware of the hopes and longings of all their fellow citizens.

For myself, I don’t have much hope for most of our elite campuses — where so much is demanded these days on behalf of diversity in other senses – taking viewpoint diversity seriously. And I wouldn’t expect our mission-driven conservative colleges and universities (such as Hillsdale) or especially those that believe that higher education should be shaped by faith (such as Christendom, Union University in Tennessee, or Brigham Young University) to prioritize said diversity.

And it’s okay to choose a school for its orthodoxy or moral and ideological conformity, knowing that it will be short on “safe spaces” for genuine dissident faculty and students. It’s the religiously orthodox schools, of course, that are much more honest about what they are doing and why. BYU is loud and proud about the fact that it offers higher education for those who have chosen to live as Mormons, but Reed doesn’t say that we’re not really for those who have chosen to live as Evangelicals. There are real constraints on intellectual freedom in both places, although there’s surely more viewpoint diversity — in the sense of Democrats and Republicans, political liberals and conservatives — at BYU.

If you want a school that offers viewpoint diversity — having, for example, more than the very rare conservative member of the faculty — you should look at the colleges and universities, both public and private, in the South. Well, not all of them. Many of them are chastened, at least a bit, by the conservative character of the surrounding cultural and political life, not to mention that of many of their students. Most southern schools that aren’t driven by a religious mission have diverse student bodies, and typically the animus against hiring and keeping conservative faculty is less severe. Not only that, the conservative foundations more often fund programs at southern institutions. Most of my friends who are highly erudite and un-marginalized relatively conservative faculty members teach at southern liberal-arts colleges. I’m not going to provide you with a list, because I’m not sure all their spaces are that safe.

Another place to look is the mainstream Catholic universities — such as Villanova, Notre Dame, and some other major basketball powers. There intellectual life reflects the diverse array of opinions found today in the life of the Church, as well as a good deal of influence from broader secular trends. At Notre Dame, it seems, half the place thinks the university doesn’t take its Catholic tradition seriously enough, the other that it’s too Catholic to be achieving the highest forms of intellectual excellence. There are resources available at Notre Dame that help you steer through the curriculum by taking only faithful Catholic professors, but it’s clear enough you’re free to choose to avoid them altogether. And even among those serious Catholics, you’ll find both Democrats and Republicans, Marxists and traditionalists and Marxist traditionalists (such as Alasdair MacIntyre and his disciples).

The goal of conservative reformers, I think, shouldn’t be to transform this or that institution in the direction of viewpoint diversity but to protect the saving grace of our system of higher education as a whole, which is its unparalleled moral and intellectual diversity. For now, the amazing thing is that any savvy young person can find the kind of “educational experience” he or she might want in our country, and typically at a surprisingly reasonable price. Opposing that diversity are the various forms of standardization that work to empty out the genuine distinctive content of our schools. Sure, the ”diversity industry” is one of them, but so too is the insistent effort of accrediting associations, foundations, government bureaucrats, experts, and so forth and so on to configure higher education in terms of measurable techno-vocational competencies. The combination of “diversity training” and the scripted delivery of measurable competencies is, if you think about it, at war with the genuine diversity that is liberal education  on behalf of the corporate agenda of inculcating the virtues associated with being compliant, collaborative, and consumer-obsessed.

Conservative politicians often make the mistake of attacking the traditional forms of American higher education — particularly tenure. They think they should disrupt all those tenured radicals, and the best way to divest our colleges of self-indulgent lefty craziness is to discipline them with the market standards of efficiency and productivity. They don’t seem to realize that our colleges are already moving in that direction; tenure is fading away. And the administrative goals being served are hardly friendly to viewpoint diversity. The typically tiny minority of conservative faculty members, in the absence of tenure, is much more vulnerable than the trendy radicals. Back into the closet they have to go in order to survive.

It’s also the case that the traditional forms of the college serve the genuinely higher forms of liberal education that conservatives often champion. The study of philosophy in light of great texts always serves viewpoint diversity by reminding us that what justice is is a perennial and invincibly difficult question that has a variety of plausible answers. When the study of justice is replaced by the activist or engaged championing of “social justice,” viewpoint diversity always suffers, because those with different views of the place and significance of justice are marginalized or worse. It’s the true study of philosophy that keeps “academic freedom” from being displaced by some dogmatic or partial and endlessly questionable view of “academic justice.”

Peter Augustine LawlerPeter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...


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